Writing Short Poems with Jackie Kay

By Day Lilico and Alice West

“I don’t make sense to myself unless I’m talking nonsense” – workshop participant, Kim Denat

On the final day of this year’s North Cornwall Book Festival, fourteen people are lucky enough to have a three-hour workshop with the Scottish Makar, Jackie Kay. In a cosy room in the Stone Barn, participants are challenged to explore a theme of time in four poems they’re asked to write. They are told to experiment and play with words and ideas, and explore different stimuli. Jackie Kay is a good facilitator of inspiration, she takes them through analysis of various poems from the anthology ‘100 Prized Poems: Twenty-Five Years of the Forward Books’ and using these poems to find themes and ideas to expand upon. The atmosphere is casual and welcoming, Jackie has created a safe space to share thoughts and work without judgment. But whenever she speaks, you could almost stick a pin in the air, the level of attention and concentration is so high. They hang off her every word and drink in her wisdom. But Jackie isn’t overbearing, the atmosphere is light-hearted and she has the group laughing along with her as she takes them on a journey through poetry.

Jackie emphasises that everything she says is a suggestion, and to build your own interpretation and bring out something unexpected and new. The group is encouraged to rework old poems, find a new way to tell an old story. The poems they’re encouraged to write vary in length, some as short as two lines, and some over a page. When they write, the room is adrift with thoughtful silence, separate from the world outside. It is hard work as there’s a lot of material packed into a few hours, but everyone seems to be enjoying themselves. It is a freeing process, as Jackie says: it’s good not to always understand and revel in the mystery of the world and of life. Poets are in a sense puzzled by the world, confused by and curious of the secrets of infinity. Poems are a way of holding up mirrors to time, because in a way, everything is about time. We are all ticking clocks. Poems are guides through the unknown, able to express the inexpressible, face complicated issues, give vision to the blind, and create abstract realities. Poems can create movement, and understanding.

Jackie guides the group in an exploration of complicated issues brought to light in the poems they read, teasing out layers of meaning, and levels of deeper understanding, and analyses how these are created. The group improves under her guidance. She gives tools and ingredients to a room enthralled, to give them what they need: both to read and write short poems. It’s a magical experience, the creative energy almost overwhelming. The room is filled with the sound of pens against paper as the writers let the idyllic setting inspire them and it’s wonderful to see so many poets together under one roof engaging in conversation and inspiring each other.

By the end of the session, every single writer in the room had produced a short collection. Jackie invites the group to share their work and one by one the writers read a piece of what they’ve written. The poems ranged from touching to entertaining, each as good as the last. Jackie gave fantastic advice and feedback to the group. The session was inspiring and truly memorable and all the writers involved should be proud of their work!